Collaborating on Food: An Interview with Wayne Roberts


Wayne Roberts community garden picture (from Facebook 2012)We spoke to Wayne Roberts, food policy expert and author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists & Entrepreneurs (2014). For 10 years, Wayne was the chair of the Toronto Food Policy Council, a group internationally renowned for being the first food policy council embedded within a major city government and a leader in the field. Wayne is widely regarded as an expert in building collaborative solutions by demonstrating how embedding food and health into all policy is valuable to all kinds of stakeholders. Check out the Food for City Building group on LinkedIn to connect with Wayne and a community of leaders  working to increase awareness and understanding of the rich relationship between food and cities. We begin with a question submitted by Wayne.

Are you okay with focusing an interview on your 350-page book and 15 year career on the theme of collaboration?

I thought no-one would ever ask! I’m delighted to focus on the theme, because if one word expresses the special reason why food is central to new city policy on food, it’s collaboration.

People understood about the connection between food and collaboration from the earliest days of cities. Think of words such as companion, company and companero. They come from the Latin combination of with (com) and pane (bread). Even the word “trivia”, my favourite, comes from the fact that early farmers markets were set up at the intersection of three (tri) roads (via). And when people got together, they were so excited and chatty, they talked about what authorities considered trivia, but was probably just a put-down of popular collaboration.

If I may say so, I got the food-collaboration connection in my first year at the Toronto Food Policy Council when I was doing research for our brief about problems in the first draft of the Official Plan.

I read Harvard business professor Elizabeth Moss Kanter’s then-famous book, World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy (1995). She made the argument that the fundamental difference between cities that failed and succeeded in the new post-industrial economy was “collaborative infrastructure.” Cities that succeeded had ways for poor and rich, white and non-white, men and women, unions and businesses, etc., to get together and problem-solve or brainstorm. The others failed.

The cities most likely to succeed, I argued, were cities with a robust food scene, starting with simple things like community gardens and baking ovens that bring neighbours together. This connecting power of food — what Welsh academic Kevin Morgan calls “the convening power of food” — has always been central to my food advocacy. It led to the Metcalf Foundation paper that led to the establishment of Sustain Ontario: “Food Connects Us All” (2008) which I co-wrote on behalf of the founding group.

Sustain: In Food for City Building, you use the adage that we frequently overestimate what will change within two years, and underestimate what can happen within a decade. With Ontarians preparing to elect their representatives for the next 4 years, what are some critical changes to expect and/or reasonable goals to achieve within this term?

We haven’t done our ten years, or our 10,000 hours, on the biggest city issue of all — which is that food is central to a dynamic city agenda, and cities are game-changers for a dynamic community-based food agenda.

A big part of the problem is that cities aren’t valued for their importance. The majority of the world’s population now live in cities, but city governments are seen as the place that looks after “parks, potholes and police.” Even progressives feel that way, as evidenced by the fact that so few environment or social justice groups field candidates for municipal elections.

Cities are undervalued, and so is food. But as soon as they’re valued, it’s all downhill from there.

As soon as councillors see how cities are best positioned to deliver food and exercise programs that can prevent child-onset diabetes — at over $1,000,000 in lifetime savings per patient — who will object to healthy snack programs at after-school recreation programs?

As soon as people realize that one-third of all food is wasted — most of it paid for by cities, a Canada-wide bill that adds up to $27 billion — who can object to municipal programs that address food waste reduction head-on?

Our ten year job is to get food on the radar, and when we succeed (our ten years are up soon), it will be transformative.

Sustain: Why should mayors, reeves, and councillors value a Food Strategy? Is it crucial to create a unified regional Food Strategy or Charter to keep food issues at the council table?

I co-wrote the Toronto Food Charter in 2001 for the city’s Food and Hunger Action Committee. It was the first big-city charter in the world, and it needs an update. But the idea of a charter is more powerful than I ever imagined.

A charter allows a city to develop consensus on deep values by what we called backcasting. Think of 20 years from now, not the next city budget.

In 20 years, do you still want 1 of every 5 children going to school hungry or malnourished? Who would say yes to that? Do you want to see ⅓ of all citizens, including kids, suffering from diet-related chronic diseases, just so we can save the economy and keep taxes down?

That’s the “trick” of a food charter. Get your mind free of the space where the rubber hits the road, and think about what kind of city we need. There’s amazing consensus on that, I believe.

Once a city has adopted a charter, advocates can give gentle reminders to city staff and politicians of what they signed on to, and when conditions are right, we can make solid progress.

Sustain: What have been your best sources of inspiration and guidance for councillors looking to innovate in the food file?

At this point in time and for some time into the future, the food file is shouldered by champions fueled by the Power of One. A councillor or city worker or citizen who sticks to an issue makes something happen. I believe that’s most (maybe only) true in city politics — which is the other reason we need to be active at this level.

You won’t find a community garden, farmers market, baking oven,school meal program that doesn’t owe its existence to the Power of One dogged and determined and positive person. To make progress easier, faster and benefit more people sooner, we need to go beyond lone individuals — that’s why food policy councils are so important — but the Power of One will always be the renewable fuel of the municipal food movement, and the major source of inspiration and new ideas. We just need to enable it.

Sustain: You write: “By going local, people are occupying a space they consider a viable source of decision-making power.” Do you see citizens looking to their local governments to take on more ambitious projects and policies?

I think you’re touching on an issue that’s going to create a huge discussion in the years ahead.

The local food discussion needs more content and edge. It can’t just be the distance between the farm and the supermarket. What if the used plastic has to go to China to be recycled, or if the pesticides have to be imported from Alberta?

In my view, the focus should be on localizing the food system as a whole, not just the miles in 1 of approximately 7 major transactions in a typical food value chain — fertilizer, tractor and pesticide factory to farm, farm to warehouse, consumer home to landfill or recycler, for example. Specific needs of a local population need to be considered, as do the needs of poor farmers trying to sell eco-friendly and fair trade products.

All of these factors mean that we need a space to continue discussing and developing pilot policies. As with many things in food, we don’t need a quick and forceful decision; we need discussion, pilots, and learning, and then good decisions that can grow with fairly widespread support.

Sustain: Most of your direct experience has been with Toronto, a huge city inside a huge metropolis. Are your approaches as valid for smaller cities and rural communities?

There is no point, large or small, at which food becomes more or less relevant to a place, just as there is no point, large or small, that an individual relies less on the physical and emotional benefits of good food.

Having said that, specific advantages and opportunities vary with the size of a place, and the different resources and challenges that go with different densities. For example, it’s just as important to have a park with picnic tables, barbeques and a baking oven in small or large communities. That’s because enjoyable food experiences attract more people to a park, making it a safer place for people to be and a place that has another level of meaning, memories, attachment and belonging for people. Whether we live in small or large communities, we all live in a world that can be cold and impersonal, so planners need to think of how food can counter the trend to impersonality and create a sense of belonging in all places, great and small.

Likewise, policy that creates business opportunities for local farmers and food producers and artisans are just as important in small and large communities. I might say it’s even more important in small communities that local governments keep an eye out for economic development opportunities, especially ones that retain young people in the community and keep them from drifting away elsewhere to seek opportunity they should be able to find locally.

Finally, almost all people have problems accessing the food they need at some time in their lives; we need consistent care to ensure that a food system is sensitive to inclusion. Is there a place for older people to enjoy a meal with friends? Has attention been paid to ensuring that comfort foods of people who’ve recently arrived from another country are available and understood and appreciated, so that food can become a tool for welcoming newcomers and learning from them? And does every elementary school have the resources to make sure every kid has the chance to learn on a full stomach, with nutrients that support mental calm and physical vitality?

The point about food is that it is an essential need, just like air and water, and every level and size of government has to make sure there’s always means to access it.

Thank you to Wayne for taking the time to respond to our questions!

Creating Dialogue around Temporary Farmers’ Markets and Community Gardens in Waterloo


PrestonFood Spaces, Vibrant Places

Thanks to a group of committed Waterloo Region community citizens and Sustain Ontario member,  Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable, the Food Spaces, Vibrant Places campaign has brought access to healthy food into the municipal election debates.

Food Spaces, Vibrant Places is an advocacy campaign aimed at increasing temporary farmers’ markets and community gardens in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo.

A main concern fuelling the campaign is that too few residents have walkable access to healthy food in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. Waterloo Region has 5.6 times more unhealthy food options (e.g., convenience stores and fast food restaurants) within walking radius (800m) of neighbourhoods than healthy food options.top_left_logo

There are roughly 60 garden sites in the three cities, equating to one garden site per every 3,000 households. Broadly speaking, community gardens face challenges in terms of finding land, water and other resources.

At present, temporary farmers’ markets are only permitted in commercial zones, thereby limiting opportunities to have markets in other community locations, close to where people live (i.e., churches, parks, or community centres). There are currently five temporary farmers’ markets in the three cities.

In order to address these challenges, members of the Food Spaces, Vibrant Places campaign have met with a number of municipal candidates. Specific steps that are being recommended by the campaign organizers are: zoning by-laws that permit temporary farmers’ markets in more than just commercial land use zones; supportive licensing by-laws and regulations for temporary farmers’ markets; incentives such as reduced or waived fees for temporary farmers’ markets; zoning by-laws that permit community gardens in residential, institutional, and open space zones; and strengthened community garden policies.

Other community members have also had the opportunity to participate in this campaign by signing an online petition, which is sent directly to their respective ward councillor candidates.

To date, members of Food Spaces, Vibrant Places, have met with 20 councillor and mayoral candidates across the three cities. All councillors have expressed their support towards what the group is advocating. Two mayoral candidates have announced their support.

Results are already being seen at the zoning and regulation level. The City of Waterloo has re-worked their Licensing By-laws, which as of 2015 will include farmers’ markets, making it easier and more affordable for groups to start a temporary farmers’ market in neighbourhoods in Waterloo. The City of Kitchener has begun their Comprehensive Review of the Zoning By-law (CRoZBy), and the Roundtable was invited to submit recommendations early in the process to better support temporary farmers’ markets and community gardens.

More information on Food Spaces, Vibrant Places is available on their website.cmnty-garden-July11-2008r

Growing Local Economies with Good Food


Vote ON Food & Farming surveys begin by asking councillor and mayoral candidates how they, if elected, will support local food and farm enterprises. The question is broad for a reason. Food and farming enterprises take many forms and are constantly adapting to new market trends, and so there is a wealth of opportunities for local governments to evaluate and enable the impacts of economic drivers rooted in this sector.

The diverse actionable strategies suggested to candidates in the solutions-based surveys include: working with planning departments to increase enabling policy and zoning for economic drivers such as farmers’ markets, on-farm processing, food hubs, and urban agriculture; working with economic development and tourism departments to develop regional branding and related tools such as Buy Local maps; and working with the province to reduce red tape and provide “one stop” regulatory resources.

But how do local food and farm enterprises contribute to the bottom line for regional economies?

The central economic benefit of an active local food industry is the multiplier effect, when each initial dollar spent in the local economy leads to increased spending within that community. Farmers’ markets demonstrate a great example of the multiplier effect. In 2008 farmer’s market direct sales in Ontario were between $427 and $641 million, which lead to an overall economic impact of $1.9 billion annually within Ontario.[1]

What can municipalities do to increase support for local food and farming practices? In line with the recent Local Food Act (Bill 36), more municipalities and public institutions are assessing how they can increase local food procurement to provide for their public and be a model for sustainable purchasing in their communities. In 2008 the City of Markham, in partnership with Local Food Plus, was the first municipality in Canada to adopt local, sustainable food procurement policies. Within three years 25% of Markham’s food budget was certified local and sustainable.[2] The City of Markham is within York Region, where one of the local Vote ON Food & Farming campaigns is taking place this October.

Additional municipalities in Ontario are turning their attention to these kinds of policies and practices. Sustain Ontario is currently working alongside the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, Bruce County, and Durham Region in establishing local food procurement plans in a project supported by a Greenbelt Fund grant.[3]

Attracting and retaining locally-embedded businesses will also support job creation. It is estimated that in the Waterloo Region for every job in the agricultural sector, four additional jobs are supported in the local economy.[4]

Read more about the economic case for strong municipal policy for local food and farming in our new Rationale and Best Practices resource featuring leading Ontario examples.




[3] Read more:



Public Health Heroes


We don’t live in a particularly healthy society: despite a rising awareness of healthy eating,  the prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and hypertension in Ontario is increasing, contributing to a direct burden of $1.6 billion in health care costs and $2.87 billion in indirect costs.[1]

While the solution commonly offered is to simply “eat healthier food,” it is much easier said than done. Fresh, nutritious food is often prohibitively expensive or even physically inaccessible within a community. More than one in ten Ontarian households experience some degree of food insecurity due to financial constraints, and it’s estimated that 375,000 Ontarians access food banks every month.[2] It’s clear that in order to start solving Ontario’s health problems, we have to first tackle food insecurity by increasing access to good food.

While the situation seems dismal, there are many people on the ground working hard to create change.  In particular, public health units are often leaders on food policy issues.

Rosie Kadwell, a public health dietician in Haliburton, chairs Harvest Haliburton and Haliburton County FoodNet.  Harvest Haliburton initiated a Community Food Assessment Steering Committee to conduct a food assessment to inform long-term planning and action for a sustainable food system, and they provide a great tool-kit for municipalities advising them on actions they can take to improve community food security.


A page from Harvest Haliburton’s Health Matters at the Council Table toolkit.

Rosie is also the lead contact for the Local Food Champion in Haliburton County, sending Vote ON Food & Farming surveys to all council candidates for the 2014 municipal elections. Read candidates responses on the Haliburton page.

Another great example of food policy leadership is the Ontario Society for Nutrition Professionals in Public Health, which has coordinated Hungry for Action, a project to build awareness and support among local decision makers in fifteen communities for healthy public policy to help reduce poverty and food insecurity across Ontario.  They’re currently working on a poverty simulation project for November and have collected survey responses from municipal candidates.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit is a participant in Hungry for Action, and has had a significant response to the municipal candidate survey. The survey asks candidates about their opinions on what they aim to do about poverty reduction on the municipal level, as well as questions about affordable transportation and housing.

With the municipal elections happening across the province on October 27, it’s a great time to celebrate people, policies and programs that are creating change in our communities and to push for even more measures, because every person deserves to be food secure.

Read more about the social case for strong municipal policy for local food and farming in our new Rationale and Best Practices resource featuring leading Ontario examples.



[1] Katzmarzyk PT, The Economic Costs Association with Physical Inactivity and Obesity in Ontario, The Health and Fitness Journal of Canada, 2011.

[2] Hunger Report 2013. Ontario Association of Food Banks.

Over 150 Municipal Candidates Declare Support for Food and Farming



Candidates connect with local stakeholders on opportunities to strengthen Ontario’s food systems, develop regional food strategies

Across Ontario, over 150 candidates for municipal councils and school boards are taking part in the Vote ON Food & Farming municipal elections campaign. As part of the campaign, council candidates have responded to surveys crafted by local food champion groups that take a solutions-based approach to issues such as regional economic resilience, farmland preservation, community food access and food literacy. Ontario is full of innovative programs and policies that address these issues, but many need council support to have a deeper impact.

“We’re absolutely thrilled with the positive responses we’ve heard from candidates,” says Carolyn Young, Program Manager at Sustain Ontario. “Many expressed surprise at discovering how much of an impact they can have on their local food systems. It shows that candidates want to take action on these issues, but more needs to be done to educate them on the impact they can have through food.”

The local campaigns are led by Local Food Champions – food policy councils, stakeholder roundtables, and non-profits active within the municipalities – and coordinated by Sustain Ontario, the Alliance for Healthy Food & Farming, a cross-sectoral alliance of over 80 member organizations. Local Food Champions sent surveys to all candidates running their upper-tier municipalities. Read candidate responses at All submitted responses are linked to from the respective municipality’s page.

“The Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table is beginning the process of building a Regional Food Strategy. By engaging regional candidates with the survey, we hope to remind voters and municipal leaders that food and farming are critical to the economy, environment, and community well-being of our region,” says Phil Mount, Co-Chair of the Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table, the Local Food Champion for Wellington County where over 60 candidates have participated. “We also think this survey will initiate a discussion – and identify consensus points – among community leaders that will serve as a strong foundation for a Regional Food Strategy.”

Municipal governments can be strategic innovators in food systems’ work. Council support of food and farming policies and programs can help municipalities meet so many of their goals related to vibrant local businesses, safe and inclusive communities, environmental sustainability and healthy citizens of all ages.

Leading 7 local campaigns, Local Food Champions sent surveys to all council candidates in:

  • Wellington County
  • York Region
  • Greater Sudbury
  • Counties of Frontenac (including Kingston) and Lennox and Addington
  • Haliburton County
  • Essex County
  • United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.

Independent food-focused campaigns for the City of Ottawa and the Thunder Bay Census Metropolitan Area are also profiled on the Vote ON Food & Farming municipal elections hub.

In addition to the council candidate surveys, Local Food Champions have also sent the Say Yes! to Good Healthy Food in Schools survey to candidates running for school board trustee. The Say Yes! survey is part of a toolkit designed by the Ontario Edible Education Network to help school food advocates and decision-makers in local and provincial government make the case for Student Nutrition Programs, food literacy in the curriculum, and other ways of advancing school food environments.

The Say Yes! survey is also being distributed to school board candidates in Renfrew County, the City of Ottawa, and Muskoka District.

Food can be a great tool for building consensus according to food policy expert and author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building, Wayne Roberts. “In 20 years, do you still want one child in five going to school hungry or malnourished? Who would say yes to that? Do you want to see a third of all citizens, including kids, suffering from chronic diseases linked to obesity? Who would say yes? … Get your mind free of the space where the rubber hits the road, and think about what kind of city is needed. There’s amazing consensus on that.”

The Vote ON Food & Farming website is chock full of information and tools for local decision makers who want to make a difference in their communities. New resources include:

  • Why in Municipalities: A glossary of the various functions/departments managed by municipal governments, and their connections to food & farming
  • Why Food and Farming in Municipalities: A review of best practices and promising practices that demonstrate how municipal governments are well-positioned to make healthy, local food a reality for Ontarians everywhere
  • School Boards Say Yes: Links to the Say Yes! to Good Healthy Food in Schools toolkit including backgrounders, opportunity briefs, research papers and case studies

Explore the participating municipalities on the Municipal Elections hub at Candidate survey responses are linked to from their municipality’s page and have been published on a rolling basis. Candidate responses continue to be submitted and published until October 24th.


Jennifer Kucharczyk
Communications Coordinator
Phone: 647.348.0235

Download a PDF version of this media release.